Divine Power, Donald Trump, and How the 2016 Presidential Elections Challenge Common Religious Assumptions

Much has been written about whether people of faith should or should not be supporting presidential candidate Donald Trump in the upcoming election. This much is clear: Trump's track record on topics that are typically valued by religious communities is dismal. This includes not only his comments but also his practices in matters of sexuality, his comments on racial and ethnic minorities, his lack of support for working people, his attitudes towards other nations and immigrants, and many other matters.

So why would people of faith still consider supporting Trump? Some believe this has to do with his stance on issues that have been of concern to conservative Christians, like abortion and a belief in America as the chosen nation. Of course, elections are not always rational and balance sheets do not always matter.

Underneath these more obvious considerations, however, deeper issues appear to be at work in this election. One of them has to do with how people conceive of the power of God. Is it possible that Trump's way of projecting power resonates with how many people of faith perceive God's power to be at work? At the heart of it all is a very particular understanding of omnipotence.

Right off the bat, there are some striking parallels. Trump projects himself as a doer who can single handedly fix things if he wants to. God is perceived by many in similar ways, if people's prayers are any indication. This is how omnipotence is commonly interpreted: as the ability to do anything an agent wants to do.

Next, Trump acts without consulting others and without asking for permission. This became most clear in what he called his "locker room talk" about how he relates to women: "Just kiss, don't even wait. And when you are a star they let you do it. You can do anything," Trump can be heard bragging about approaching women on a hot mic (CNN video footage). This, too, is how omnipotence is commonly interpreted: as the ability to act without being influenced by anyone else. In classical Greek philosophy, in order to be omnipotent God had to be the first unmoved mover.

The power projected here is strictly from the top down, from a subject to its objects, from the ruler to the ruled. Trump later apologized "if anyone was offended" by his remarks, but he did not apologize for the kind of power he projected. This top-down power is very real, transcending the sexual and suffusing the political and everything else: the powerful, the star, like certain images of God, can do anything. According to this logic, might also makes things right.

What is the alternative? From the perspective of Trump and many of his supporters, it is to do nothing at all. This was one of his main charges against the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the second presidential debate: she had never done anything. Far from merely being campaign rhetoric, such an assumption shows a particular understanding of power. Power that moves through democratic processes, consensus, and parliamentarian procedures, is disregarded as ineffective and weak.

At first sight, religion seems to back up unilateral top-down power, as divine power is often perceived in precisely this way. Fortunately, there are other resources that provide alternative points of view. In the Middle Ages, some Christian views of omnipotence held that God, unlike a tyrant who could do anything he wanted, tempered unlimited power with the demands of justice (Anselm of Canterbury, see Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, 2007).

In the Abrahamic traditions, divine power is at times more closely linked to people power than to the power of kings and rulers. The traditions of the Exodus from Egypt, which Jews, Christians, and Muslims share in common, talk about a conflict between God's power and the power of Pharaoh and the formation of alternative power which was organized by Moses, Aaron, and their sister Miriam. Prophets like Isaiah and Amos also challenge top-down power in the name of God, as does the example of Jesus who for Christians shapes the image of God.

These challenges to top-down power are coming alive again today not only in times of presidential elections (where they are often missed by the candidates) but also in the various social movements of our age. Unilateral top-down power has proven to be problematic at many levels. Not only can it amount to unwanted sexual and political advances, it is even troublesome when it tries to do good and to help, especially if the recipients have no share in this power.

Alternative forms of power that are built on collaboration, consensus, and shared governance are not only a better match for those of us who still seek to uphold democracy and the Constitution's theme of "We, the people." These forms of power may also be more deeply rooted in many of our religious traditions than we ever realized. Whatever the election may hold, it is time for people of faith to think more deeply about the God they are worshiping and the kinds of power they want to support.